News Column

Failed Fla. Constitutional Amendments Too Conservative, Controversial

Nov. 12, 2012

Aaron Deslatte, Tallahassee Bureau Chief, Orlando Sentinel

From judicial activism to Obamacare, a lot of Florida's conservative heart and soul was on the ballot this year.

The Republican-led Florida Legislature loaded voters down with constitutional amendments to give tax breaks to businesses, impose restrictions on abortions, cap state spending and let tax dollars flow to religious groups.

Voters said no -- and the results weren't even close.

The failed questions were "too conservative, too controversial, too long and too confusing for the average Florida voter," UCF political scientist Aubrey Jewett said.

None of the eight ideologically driven amendments defeated Tuesday garnered even a simple majority of the more than 7 million votes cast. Even the anti-Obamacare Amendment 1 drew only 48 percent support -- even though the 2010 federal health-care law has consistently polled poorly in Florida.

Critics said the results were a stern rebuke of the conservative right turn the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott took two years ago.

"Every issue from the right-wing agenda was rejected by the citizens," said House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation.

But Republican policymakers countered that they erred by asking voters to bite off more than they could chew in one setting.

"I don't think you can draw a clear inference other than to say conservatives and liberals ... are sick and tired of a constitution that more resembles the book of Leviticus than the U.S. Constitution," said incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Tuesday's result flies in the face of recent history. Since Florida's Constitution was rewritten in 1968, 80 percent of legislatively authored constitutional amendments have passed at the polls.

This year, only three -- 27 percent -- passed, giving property-tax breaks to poor seniors, disabled veterans and spouses of vets and first responders killed in the line of duty.

Jewett said lawmakers' past amendments have historically been bipartisan and brief.

"Perhaps the moral of the story is: Just because you have the votes to put something on the ballot does not mean you should," he said.

Republican lawmakers for more than a decade have been hostile to the number of citizen-backed constitutional amendments that have made the ballot, particularly changes reducing school class sizes and increasing the minimum wage.

Since 2006, the business lobby and GOP lawmakers have made it harder to amend the state's constitution: imposing stricter rules for signature-petition groups and raising the bar for passage from a simple majority to 60 percent.

But Gaetz said lawmakers had opted to go the amendment route this time because they were stymied by prohibitions already hard-wired into the Constitution.

For instance, he supported Amendment 4 to repeal the property-tax "recapture" law that forced tax bills higher even as home values have slumped since 2006. But Amendment 4 was also loaded with language to give bigger tax breaks to businesses, snowbirds and new homeowners -- and drew only 43 percent support.

"We were playing the hand we're dealt: a constitution that is littered with all types of flypaper," Gaetz said.

But voters didn't just reject amendments.

This fall, the Republican Party of Florida made an unprecedented move to oppose the merit retention of three Democrat-appointed Supreme Court justices they called too liberal. With $5 million from trial lawyers and liberal groups, the justices were easily retained with more than 67 percent of the vote.

Source: (c)2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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